Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 82 pp. $23.00.
The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optimist, in 2004, one’s pleasure was tempered by the wish that Mehigan had shown off a little more, strutted his content as much as he had his technical mastery. The poems were almost too careful and too prematurely mature—granted, qualities rare and gratifying in poets of any age. In the first lines of that collection’s first poem, “Promenade,” Mehigan matter-of-factly announced his project: “This is the brief departure from the norm / that celebrates the norm.” No pyrotechnics, no obligatory transgressive gestures, no mimicking of madness.
In 2011, Mehigan offered clues to his poetic strategy when he published an essay in Poetry, “I Thought You Were a Poet: A Notebook,” that addresses what for more than two centuries has been the routinely romanticized connection between poetry and madness. Mehigan refers wryly to his own “behavioral health problems,” but remains a dedicated anti-romantic on the subject. He gives no bonus points to poets who attempt suicide, turn visionary, behave in anti-social ways or otherwise go dotty. Referring to his diagnosed “mood disorder,” Mehigan writes:
Mine spurs me and furnishes a worldview. But because it also sometimes makes me awkward and disagreeable, I’ve grown to consider poetry as, in part, a set of tactics for offering my Best Self to the world. This doesn’t mean I write poems to make friends or be straightforwardly charming. But because forethought and discretion rarely appear in my personal life, I like to cultivate them in my poems.
The result in Accepting the Disaster is a looser, grittier, more confident collection of poems, still technically deft and emotionally mature, but increasingly playful, sometimes skirting light verse, and also increasingly dark, as in these stanzas from “The Smokestack”:
It came before Lincoln Steffens.
It survived Eric Blair.
It was older than stop signs.
It would always be there,
resembling a tuxedo ruffle,
or an elephant head,
or a balled-up blanket
on a hospital bed.
It stopped three times a year,
But only for one day.
Once, in the ’30s, it seemed to die.
Many families went away.
It’s useful to know Mehigan was born in 1969 and raised in Johnstown, in upstate New York, once a center of leather tanning and, with neighboring Gloversville, glove manufacturing. Philip Roth refers to the “Glove Cities” in American Pastoral: “Up in Gloversville, when the Second World War began, there must have been ninety glove factories, big and small. Today there isn’t a one—all of them out of business or importers from abroad.” What’s left are ghost towns of displaced technologies and derelict factories, as in “The Smokestack.” Mehigan makes frequent reference to such post-industrial landscapes, as in “The Hill”: “On the quiet hill beside the droning mill / across the dirty stream, nearer than they seem, / they wait and will be waiting.” And in “The Cement Plant”:
The cement plant was like a huge still
nailed in gray corrugated panels
and left out forty-five years ago
in the null center of a meadow
to tax itself to remorseless death
near a black stream and briars, where
from the moment it began to breathe,
it began falling apart and burning.
But it still went, and the men were paid.
The centerpiece of Accepting the Disaster is “The Orange Bottle,” at seventeen pages the longest poem he has published. It’s a ballad-like narrative, the fractured story of a young schizophrenic who stops taking his clozapine and quickly drops into true, unambiguous, unromantic madness. He is “buried above ground,” as William Cowper writes more than two-hundred years ago in “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity.” Mehigan’s rhythms pound as insistently as a nursery rhyme, a counterpoint that lends grim comedy and hopelessness to the schizophrenic’s plight. As the drug’s effect abates and the sickness seeps in, his world fills with signs and portents of menace. Inanimate objects speak to him. For the mad, the world doesn’t lose meaning; it overflows with it: “He had a sickening feeling / that he was becoming wiser.” And this:
His room filled up with interest.
He had begun to think!
He thought of the knives in the kitchen
and the bottles under the sink.
He thought as he switched the stove on
or stood at his shaving mirror,
or reached for his belt in the wardrobe.
Thinking made things clearer.
He ventures outside and moves from coffee shop to police cruiser to jail to halfway house. His existence is narrow, baffling, and out of his control. Mehigan’s dramatization of mental illness repudiates Theodore Roethke’s often-cited cliché: “What’s madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” Medication relieves the worst of symptoms, but at a terrible cost:
Each night he fell asleep,
and each morning he got up,
and he washed down his medicine
and squashed the paper cup,
feeling, in all, much better,
more in touch with common sense,
and also slightly bored
by the lack of consequence.
And the church bells rang
and a dinner bell tinkled
and the school bell tolled
and called all the good girls and boys in.
And all of them brought all their toys in.
And all of them swallowed their poison.
Had Mehigan treated his story as prose fiction, the temptation to be didactic would likely have subverted it—another sob story of victimhood—but he’s not interested in the moral of the story. Often his poems are variations on dramatic monologues, and we don’t confuse his narrators and main characters with their author. Mehigan’s most valuable gifts as a poet are his ability to maintain impersonal distance and remain indifferent to fashion without repudiating tradition. The sociologist Edward Shils might be referring to Mehigan when he writes: “The beginning writer seeks a tradition until he finds one or several and then begins to develop his own style; but he must be a person of great courage and perseverance to disregard the traditions which are proffered to him and insisted upon by teachers, contemporaries, friends, critics, and publishers.” As a poet, Mehigan has passed through apprenticeship and is thriving as a journeyman working toward mastery. Among his mentors was the late Edgar Bowers, an American master whose own astringent style shares little with Mehigan’s, but whose devotion to an “ageless passion” has proven a life-enhancing gift to a once-young poet.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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